The federal government is set to announce Monday the loosening of some border restrictions for fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents but says "the finish line" won't come until there are significantly increased vaccination rates in Canada.
The changes to the border restrictions will be limited to a few measures, with all non-essential travel still discouraged, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton in an interview that aired Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live.
There would be "changes with respect to the government-assisted hotels, perhaps some implication on who would be subject to quarantine, what it means to be a fully vaccinated traveller and what changes can now be accommodated for those people who are, in fact, fully vaccinated," Blair said.
Ottawa announced Friday it would be continuing existing restrictions at the Canada-U.S. border for at least another month, until July 21, but that changes would be coming on Monday for fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents.
The shift in policy at the border comes as many Canadian provinces have hit key vaccination targets — with more than 75 per cent of eligible Canadians receiving at least one dose, and over 20 per cent receiving two.
Pressure from both sides of the border
Mayors of Canadian border cities have loudly and frequently called for more clarity from the federal government.
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley told Barton he believed the extension of restrictions to late July made sense but that better communication is needed.
"So far, all we get is leaks of information. We want to see a clear plan and a crisp plan that's understandable to Canadians," he said.
Bradley added that he had long felt fully vaccinated travellers should be able to more easily cross the border but that "it could all go off the rails with the [COVID-19] variant. I hope that doesn't happen. People are tired, people are cranky. They want to get back to our normal life. And I'm hoping with the double vaccination, that will be the ticket to do so."
Meanwhile, elected officials in the United States reacted harshly to the news on Friday of the extended border measures.
"I wish there was a more artful way to say this — but this is bullshit," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democratic congressman whose Buffalo, N.Y., district touches the border.
There’s no other way to say it: another month’s delay is bullshit. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetUsReunite?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#LetUsReunite</a> <a href="https://t.co/xL2vUQol8e">pic.twitter.com/xL2vUQol8e</a>—@RepBrianHiggins
Blair said the government was "working cautiously but steadily toward a phased reopening."
But the public safety minister warned that Canada wouldn't reach "the finish line" until about 75 per cent of eligible Canadians are fully vaccinated.
That's the number the Public Health Agency of Canada has cited as the point at which major restrictions, such as those on indoor gatherings outside of households, could be safely lifted and at which Blair said more "changes are possible" at the border. He did not specify what those changes would be.
Blair also reiterated that the government was remaining cautious and monitoring the situation around variants of concern when considering changes to border policy. Government officials have said border measures will respond to changing epidemiological circumstances.
"We're moving toward those targets and we're making changes, I think, appropriate to the level of vaccination that's currently in place," he said.
"We've hit an important benchmark, but we haven't reached the finish line."
More travellers expected after rule change
Blair told Barton that he expects the changes in rules for fully vaccinated travellers would impact the number of people coming to Canada and that he has been working with PHAC and border services to ensure there was appropriate capacity.
"I'm absolutely certain it's going to have an impact on traveller volumes," Blair said, adding that there were likely many Canadians thinking of travelling to the United States to take care of property.
To determine whether travellers returning to Canada are fully vaccinated, Blair reiterated the government was co-ordinating with international partners, including the U.S. and European countries, on a vaccine verification system for international travel.
"We're working with our global partners, particularly with the United States, in the development of the vaccine certification system that will be very efficient and be able to gain access and utilize appropriately — and with appropriate personal privacy concerns accommodated within it."
But as an "interim" measure, Blair said the ArriveCAN app — currently in use at the border — would be modified to enable it to accept vaccine verification documents.
"We believe this app is going to help us accommodate the inevitable increase in traveller volumes," he said.
You can watch full episodes of Rosemary Barton Live on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.
With files from Rosemary Barton and Tyler Buist